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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 June, 2005, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
High and dry
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

The UK has its first hosepipe ban in nine years after a dry winter. But why is this green and pleasant land of high rainfall running low on water?

It's a no-win situation for the gardeners and car owners of north Sussex this summer.

To avoid a hosepipe ban for the foreseeable future, they need six weeks of continuous rain to allow water levels to recover enough so they can douse their gardens and wash their cars again. Neither will be popular.

For from Friday, the UK's first hosepipe ban since 1996 comes into force, affecting 110,000 homes in north Sussex. The reservoir which supplies the households is only half-full after one of the driest winters on record, says Southern Water.

It's not only the UK which is drying out. Portugal is facing its worst drought for 300 years, while Spain is experiencing the driest conditions for 60 years. Public fountains have been turned off, swimming pools are empty and things are only expected to get worse when tourists descend for their summer holidays.

Taps off

In Sydney, Australia, water restrictions have been in place for 18 months because of one of the worst droughts in a century. The authorities have dispatched a fleet of 50 patrol cars to make sure everyone complies, and neighbours have appeared in court after fighting over wasteful water use.

Seven 1.5L water bottles
Each person's daily water use would fill these bottles 14 times over
But environmental experts in the UK warn that rain or shine, water restrictions could soon become commonplace as more demands are put on our dwindling supplies.

"It's not as simple as just praying for rain," says environmental journalist Guy Shaw.

"The UK has limited natural and man-made capacities for water storage and when it does rain it is often at the wrong time of the year. During the summer the ground is just too hard to absorb the rain and replenish the reservoirs.

"Then when it does rain in winter, it is often so heavy it does not soak into rock; instead topsoil becomes saturated and the water runs away into rivers. This causes particular problems in the South East because most of the water in the region comes from supplies in underground rock rather than rivers, as in the North."

Fill a kettle: one
Fill a watering can: five
Flush a toilet: nine
Have a shower: 30-50
Use a dishwasher: 25-60
Fill a bath: 80
Do laundry: 70-120

Another serious concern is the growing population. The UK - particularly the South East - is densely populated, which means that for each person there is relatively little water.

"We are near the bottom of the league table in Europe for the amount of water we have per head of population and we are using more and more," says Dr Mark Shepherd, of the independent environmental advisory company, ADAS.

"In the 1920s we used 120 litres per person per day; that has now gone up to 150 and is set in increase further. The more affluent we get and the more appliances we buy for the home, the more water we use. We take it for granted but water is only going to get scarcer."

Often it is lazy habits doing damage. Leaving the tap running while brushing teeth sends six litres of water down the plughole; if the entire adult population of England and Wales turned off the tap, enough water would be saved to supply nearly 500,000 houses, according to the Environment Agency.

Water water everywhere?

Our water-thirsty pastimes are also at fault. Watering the garden usually accounts for about 6% of the water supplied on a single day, but when it's hot this can increase to 70%. A garden sprinkler alone uses more than 1,000 litres of water an hour, enough to supply six people for a whole day.

Use a beaker for tooth brushing
Plant drought-resistant plants
Use a bowl to wash up
Fill kettle with only water needed
Wash fruit and veg in bowl

"Water is a very precious resource and thousands of litres are wasted every day by dripping taps and people using hosepipes," says Shaw.

"But water companies should take a large chunk of the blame. The water infrastructure is old and decrepit, resulting a huge amount of water being lost because of leaks."

According to industry regulator Ofwat, more than three billion litres of water are lost each day through broken and leaking pipes. That's a fifth of the 15 billion litres supplied by the UK water system daily, and is equivalent to the entire amount of bottled water drunk by Britons in a year.

Water UK, the body representing water companies, says the industry is working hard to replace or repair pipes.

Ideas mooted to tackle the problem include piping water from the North to heavily populated areas in the South.

But environmentalists insist the government should start by reducing people's water consumption and banning house building on flood plains, which stops rain reaching the aquifers that hold water.

"The government is looking for solutions but many of its other plans, like house-building programmes, will only exacerbate the problem," says Dr Shepherd.

Shaw agrees: "We need some bold thinking and decisions from the government to tackle this problem. After all, we're not talking about something any of us can do without."

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